Ten years ago, he would not have imagined that anything like this could be happening, it was inconceivable, a ludicrous thought.
But it was around that time that Justin Young was starting to jog, and then break into a run every now and then, for the same reason that the vast majority of people do the same. It was exercise, a break in the day, an escape from the routine and a chance to entertain solitary thoughts, or, no thoughts at all.
Anything more than a simple jog, breaking a sweat, continuing on a bit and catching deep breaths was too much to consider. He had no idea about the simplicity of the process.
He and wife, Michelle, were in Tucson, Ariz., having recently returned from their time in the Peace Corps, and Young felt the need for some exercise. He hadn’t been an active runner/jogger very long before he saw a 10-mile run and thought he’d give it a shot. Why not?
“I ran most of it,” he said, “and found it was more enjoyable than I originally thought. I walked here and there, but not for long, and I’d start back running. It felt good.”
Long story short, the couple landed teaching jobs on Oahu, moved in and they were loving life when Michelle got pregnant — “very pregnant, with twins,” as Justin put it — and they realized her time away from her teaching job was going to plunge them into an area of financial need that wouldn’t be supported by one teaching job. Young landed a job teaching mathematics at the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa and they moved to Puna, where Michelle eventually found a teaching job at Kamehameha Schools.
Everything settled down on the home front, but at the same time, Young’s interest in running had the effect of whatever would be the opposite of settling down. His newfound discipline just took off.
He started entering local races, and he still does sign up for 5 Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and the Hilo marathon. Without realizing it at the time, Justin Young was training himself to be an ultra runner — distances beyond a marathon.
“Here’s the thing,” he said the other day over a burrito and a beer, trying to explain his interest in 100 mile runs, “it’s all in your mind, or, at least, it was all in my mind. When I ran my first 10K, I could not imagine finishing a marathon.
“I literally remember thinking, ‘What drives those people? How can they even do that?’ It was totally beyond my comprehension, because at the end of that 10K, I realized I could not have run another step or two, I was so done.”
A month ago, Young finished a 100-mile run in Vermont — he’s completed four of those, so far — and has done a few 55-mile runs and two Hilo-to-Volcano uphill ultras. He’s looking forward to another Hurt 100 in January on Oahu, and he’ll again run the Big Island International Marathon next March.
Yeah, it’s exhausting, and, for most of us, it seems out of reach, even if we thought we might want to try something extreme like that some day.
But, as Young says, here’s the thing that most people, even most runners, may not grasp:
“It’s all in your mind,” he said. “If I ran in a 10K today, I guarantee you at the end, I’d be completely shot and I would not be able to even think about running any farther.
“But I always think that, until I try.”
He ran a 10K and it occurred to him that a half-marathon was not that much more, so he gave it a shot and was able to complete the run, but he was still awed by marathoners.
“No way,” he said, when asked if he thought he could then complete a marathon, but these concepts have a way of working on him, internally. At some point he swallowed his pride, thought he might not make it, but determined he should give it a try.
Of course he finished his first marathon, and now he’s comfortably in the company of the very few ultra runners on the eastside of the Big Island. If you consider Volcano part of the eastside, Young would represent a full 50 percent of the ultra runners here, along with ultra veteran Billy Barnett who has run several 100-milers.
Young trains daily, usually up at 4 a.m. to get in a hour on the road and put away seven or eight miles before school, then after school, it’s back out for another even or eight miles. On the weekends, he meets up with Bree Brown for a long run, often from Waipio to Waimanu and back, a 6000-foot elevation gain and a good test for any runner.
He will get in 60-70 miles a week in training for the Hurt 100, loading up to 90-100 miles by the end of December, than take a day off and taper down until race day.
So here he is, doing far more than he ever imagined possible, and loving what he discovered, even when it’s weird.
In his last 100-mile race, a month ago in Vermont, he competed on the hottest day on record there, finishing in 24 hours 16 minutes when the entirety of the competition was slowed by the heat, which can play tricks on the mind.
“Around 1 or 2 in the morning, I was going along pretty well and I started hallucinating,” he said. “It was pitch black, I was walking up some kind of hill, it was all like a dream, but at the same time I knew I was doing this and I kind of want along with it, but then I thought, ‘This isn’t real,’ and I just snapped out of it.
“I thought, ‘Well, that was interesting.’”
All of it allowed him to develop a personal understanding of the challenge and how to deal with it. He ran a 10K and thought a half-marathon wasn’t that much more. He ran a half-marathon and thought he’d try a marathon.
After a couple marathons he completed a 50-mile run and at the point he began to consider the 100-mile runs.
“It’s humbling,” he said, “at some point you get the idea, ‘I can do this,’ and then later you find yourself thinking, ‘I’m doing this, it’s happening,’ and at the end, it’s just emotional, crossing the finish line.
“My advice is to not think about how much left you have to run. You get past 50 miles, you’re still running and you’re just going from aid station to aid station. I ask how far it is to the next one, and it’s about two hours, and that’s all I focus on.
“You run the first 50 with your legs,” he said, you run the last 50 with your heart. I just tell myself before one of those (100-mile runs), ‘This is a good day, I don’t have to worry about anything, all I have to do today is keep running at my pace,’ and then I just go do it.”
It’s all a mindset. You really can do more than you think you can do, if you just try.
Take it from this ultra runner who signs up for every 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, 55-mile and 100-mile run he can find, less than 10 years after he had never run a single race and didn’t believe he could finish one.
It’s all in your head.
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